This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

 Soviet poster from 1948. The captions read ‘Under capitalism’ and ‘Under socialism’. Photograph: Wayland Rudd Archive/Yevgeniy Fiks/Flint
Soviet poster from 1948. The captions read ‘Under capitalism’ and ‘Under socialism’. Photograph: Wayland Rudd Archive/Yevgeniy Fiks/Flint

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From how the Soviet Union capitalised on US discrimination to throwing out the balance sheet of the British Empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Racial Harmony in a Marxist Utopia: How the Soviet Union Capitalised on US Discrimination

Steve Rose

Workers from all countries and oppressed colonies raise the banner of Lenin!”; “All hail the world October revolution!” extol the slogans. But what makes these 1930s Soviet propaganda posters different is the inclusion of African people, marching arm-in-arm with other races towards a Marxist utopia. At the time, few Russians would have seen a black person in the flesh, including the artists who created these images.

This poster from 1957, shows a multicultural group exploring Moscow sights. Photograph: Wayland Rudd Archive/ Yevgeniy Fiks/Flint
This poster from 1957, shows a multicultural group exploring Moscow sights. Photograph: Wayland Rudd Archive/ Yevgeniy Fiks/Flint

The posters are included in the new exhibition Things Fall Apart, at Calvert 22 in London. It examines the connections between Africans and the Soviet Union, and it’s a fascinating, almost forgotten history. Africans and African-Americans did indeed come to the Soviet Union, even in the 1930s, says Russian-born, New York-resident artist Yevgeniy Fiks. Having scoured the mass of Soviet propaganda images, Fiks has brought together about 200 images to create the Wayland Rudd Archive. It is named after an African-American actor who, frustrated by the racism of the US entertainment industry, emigrated to Moscow in 1932. He lived and worked there until his death 20 years later. Had he seen this year’s all-white Oscar nominations, Rudd might have felt he made the right move. [continue reading]

Turkish Scientists Rocked by Accusations of Supporting Terrorism

Quirin Schiermeier

Hundreds of Turkish academics are waiting to find out whether they will be prosecuted or sacked for spreading “terrorist propaganda”, after they signed a petition calling for violence to end in Turkey’s southeast, where government forces have been fighting Kurdish separatists.

After the petition provoked a furious response from Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, several universities in the country have begun investigations into signatories among their faculty — which could lead to their dismissal if accusations of unlawful political agitation hold up. On 15 January, police arrested and later released 27 academics, according to local media reports, including economists, physicians and scientists. [continue reading]

Berlin, 1873: A New Imperial Center and a Transatlantic Financial Crisis

Catherine Davies
Global Urban History

When thinking about the interrelationship between the urban and the global, stock exchanges may yield valuable insights. A quintessentially urban locale, they were often seen as institutions that brought global events home with much force and immediacy. Describing British society during the Napoleonic Wars, the narrator in William Thackeray’sVanity Fair (1847/48) observes that the City of London, work place of stock broker William Sedley, was a ‘stirring place in those days, when war was raging all over Europe, and empires were being staked … Old Sedley once or twice came home with a very grave face; and no wonder, when such news as this was agitating all the hearts and all the stocks of Europe.’

The World's Exchanges

Print “The World’s Exchanges” from 1886 displaying the stock exchanges in New York, Paris, Chicago, London, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Brussels (from top left to bottom right)

London was then the largest and most important securities exchange in Europe. But the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a proliferation of exchanges on the Continent, too. In Vienna, Empress Maria Theresia had announced the establishment of an exchange in 1761. In 1805, regular trading in government bonds began in Berlin; in 1816, the city of Frankfurt followed suit. Initially, the vast majority of securities listed were bonds issued by states. With the advent of railways, however, joint-stock companies proliferated and their shares were traded on exchanges in large numbers. [continue reading]

Sure, Washington Has Always Supported Democracy in Haiti

Greg Grandin

“As in the past, the United States is taking great interest in how elections in Haiti are unfolding,” a State Department spokesperson announced a few days ago; “The United States reaffirms its support for credible, transparent, and secure elections that reflect the will of the Haitian people.” George Orwell couldn’t have said it better: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” And we have always supported democracy in Haiti.

The remark was in response to the country’s current political crisis—a crisis largely created by Washington—that forced the postponement of a runoff presidential election. The first-round vote, last October, was so marred by fraud, corruption, and violence that all other candidates, save Washington’s favored and handpicked successor to the current president, Michel Martelly—Jovenel Moïse—were boycotting the second runoff round. In other words, the runoff had only one candidate: Washington’s. [continue reading]

Time to Throw Out the Balance Sheet

Alan Lester
Snapshots of Empire

A bit of a departure from our standard project blog, this essay responds to the latest rehashing of the British Empire in the media. The Rhodes statue debate and a YouGov poll have both made the British Empire topical again. The Independent (Saturday, 23 Jan) has called for the Empire to be taught ‘warts and all’ so that the 44% of Britons who are proud of it have a little more to think about. This is no bad thing, but the problem comes when we identify the ‘warts.’ When the public are invited to consider imperial legacies, it is always in the form of pros and cons. The gifts that Britain gave the world versus the violence and destruction that came along with them.

It is time to stop thinking about the Empire in these terms. And it’s not enough to call for schools to teach about the Empire’s bad bits as well as the good that it did, because it leads only to the same balance sheet approach. It’s the entire assumption that a balance sheet is meaningful that we need to throw out once and for all. Why? Because that approach always makes ‘benefits’ that worked very unevenly seem universal, while it reduces ‘costs’ to specific episodes rather than systematic features of imperial rule. The good was always structural, the bad always specific. [continue reading]